Copyright © 2008 by Roy Blount Jr.
Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian chrjo chrjo. That may look arbitrary. As if it went something like this:
English committee member #1
What'll we put down for pig noise?
Member #2 (whose motives are unclear)
Let's name it for my uncle Oink.
No, we need to capture more of that grunh, grunh . . .
(Weary groan arises.)
In Russia . . .
(He or she is shouted down.)
People. We have to move on.
Have you ever tried to spell any of the various sounds that pigs make? It isn't easy. It's damn well worth trying, but eventually you have to settle on something close. (Chickens being more articulate, you'll find their noises to be pretty similar the world round. Baby chicks go peep peep in English, pío pío in Spanish, piyo piyo in Japanese.)
And I'm not sure Pinker is playing fair with that chrjo. It's not Russian letters. How am I supposed to know how Russian people or pigs pronounce it? Fortunately, by Googling "Russian pigs go," I have obtained the input of an online chatperson (at ask.metafilter.com) named "MrAnonymous," who sounds like he knows what he is talking about:
In Russian, pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled r's and the h is more of a hk sound, like when you try to build a loogie. (Don't try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.)
That, although it should be "try to pronounce" and phlegm, is not bad. Over the years and around the world, generation building upon generation, people have put much mimetic effort into the spelling of pig utterance.
For that matter, grunt works for me, and I resent any insinuation that I have been programmed by random convention. Dictionaries in their grudging way call grunt "probably imitative." The word is a distinct refinement, or counterrefinement, of the Old English grunettan, and although the parallel Greek gry, in comparison, looks less than fully swinish, you can see the resemblance. The French for "to grunt" is grogner. You know what the French for the growl of a car is? Vroum!
That car is running on alphabet juice. So, less obviously, are spice and tang and strength (do you think that word fits its meaning no better than would, say, delicacy?) and, excuse me, sphincter, which shares a root, incidentally, with the Sphinx.
Marshall McLuhan, whom we celebrate for coming up with such memes as "the global village" and "the medium is the message," played fast and loose with the roots of words, according to his biographer, Philip Marchand: he "pored over etymologies in the OED as if they were mystic runes," and irritated colleagues at Cambridge by making up fanciful derivations to support his theories. I prefer a firmer grip on etymology—"the wheel-ruts of modern English," as etymonline.com puts it.
So I am not going to think of the mysterious statue and say sph- is soft (face of a woman, and we may think of sphagnum moss), the middle part is retentive-sounding,...
Author: Roy Blount Jr.
Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty previous books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount now lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, painter Joan Griswold.
If everybody's first English teacher were Roy Blount Jr., we might still be trillions in debt, but we would be so deeply in love with words and their magic that we'd hardly notice." - The Dallas Morning News
If your eyes have only skimmed over the long subtitle of Alphabet Juice and just vaguely registered that the book has something to do with words, please go back and read the entire subtitle again, slowly. This time listen to the syncopation of the clauses, as well as the alliterative music of the p's and t's, then note the juxtaposition of high and low style ('combinations thereof,' 'innards'), the punchy yet unexpected nouns ('gists,' 'pips'), that touch of genteel sexual innuendo ('secret parts'), and the concluding flourish of the gustatory. Like Roy Blount Jr. himself, his new book's subtitle neatly balances real learning with easy-loping charm." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
A few words about Alphabet Juice: Hilarious! Brilliant! Provocative! Okay, one more--Suaviloquent!" - Daniel Klein, co-author of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar
Alphabet Juice is the book Roy Blount Jr. was born to write, which, considering his prodigious talent, is saying a lot. Did you know that the word laugh is linguistically related to chickens and pie? This is the book that any of us who urgently, passionately love words--love to read them, roll them over the tongue, and learn their life stories--were lucky enough to be born to read." - Cathleen Schine, author of The New Yorkers